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Here in California, where I live, nine of the top 10 biggest fires in state history have happened in the last decade, and they're basically three big reasons why several dangerous fires burning across southern California and stifling hot and dry conditions.
First, it's climate change which pushes temperatures up to levels that are usually unheard of here. Like we just had over the weekend.
One part of L.A. County hit 121 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded their second.
It's that for decades now, the U.S. has focused too much on fire suppression, putting out fires where they actually should burn, which means a buildup of more stuff on the ground that can catch fire.
And third, it's us people start fires tonight, we're learning shocking details about what started the 7500 acre Eldorado fire that's burning near Yucaipa, especially now when in the middle of a pandemic, more people are getting together outside, hiking, camping. And in the case of the big fire burning in San Bernardino County, having parties now comes word that that blaze was sparked by a gender reveal.
Party officials say that the pyrotechnic device, which exploded colored smoke to announce the baby's sex, ignited the dry brush.
The Cal Fire, the state fire fire agency says in an average fire season here, about 300000 acres burned already this year. Over two million acres have burned.
That is a record and it could get worse as the hot Santa Ana winds are expected to pick up again on Tuesday and Wednesday. Coming up, what it would take to prevent these fires and why it's so hard to make those things happen. This is consider this from NPR.
I'm Kelly McEvers. It is Monday, September 7th.
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Fire officials here knew things needed to change.
That was when a fire known as the old fire burned a part of the town of Big Bear.
There was three or 400 houses that were lost. So it was a big moment of recognition, is what I would say, to where all of a sudden public opinion changed in a very rapid way.
Jeff Willis is the fire chief there. He says that fire exposed some vulnerabilities. Houses had wooden roofs. They were surrounded by dry, flammable brush.
So the town issued new requirements to cut the brush and gave grants to more than a thousand homeowners to replace the roofs.
You know, that was that was a heck of an effort gradually over time, although initially controversial, I think we made tremendous strides.
But the problem is that brush, it grows back and cutting it down every year costs money.
Essentially, what I would need and I know I'm not alone a fire chiefs perspective, we would need to double our budget.
The state of California had planned to set up a billion dollar fund to help do some of this fire prevention. But like a lot of states during the pandemic, California just has a lot less money to spend. And the program was canceled.
We can't one more injured and one more hand crew our way out of this. It's just not going to be. Tom Harber, national fire chief for the U.S. Forest Service, told NPR the scale of the wildfire problem is so vast that even if we do a lot of the right things, like the kinds of things they did in Big Bear, it could take decades to make a real difference.
As bad as it is, it's going to get worse and it's going to get worse for another decade or two, even with us adopting some of these mitigations. NPR's Lauren Sommer and Nate Rott have reported on wildfires and why states like California are struggling to deal with them.
You can find a link to their work in our episode notes. Of course, one of the many problems these wildfires create is smoke, which can travel hundreds of miles from where it starts.
So one of the things I always try to remind folks is that we all live downwind of somebodies.
Jessica Gilman is an atmospheric chemist for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and she told NPR back in late August.
Right now, even though most of the fires are certainly on the West Coast, you know, up to 80 percent or more of the continental U.S. is seeing the effects of the smoke. So even, you know, my family who lives in Ohio can go out and see these red sunsets potentially from smoke that's being emitted out in California and Colorado. The risk of breathing unhealthy air is higher.
Of course, if you are close to the source of the smoke and if you work outside, which is what reporter Erica Mahoney found in the Strawberry Fields of Salinas, California, their farm workers really don't have the option to stay home because their paycheck depends on how much they pick.
A farm worker swiftly picks a row of strawberries. He tosses to the ground the bruised berries that won't sell the others into their plastic clamshells. The air quality is better on this day, but just a few weeks ago, the sun glowed orange and ash fell from the sky after a wildfire erupted nearby. Hesus Almada, the ag foreman, says the smoke was so thick in mid-August that it hurt the crews sinuses facility that they we must keep an eye on.
We stopped for our safety, he says. We had to stop for one day and that wasn't an easy call. He's in charge of 65 people who are paid more money the more they pick.
It's been a tremendously difficult year. Dr Caroline Kennedy cares for farm workers. She directs nine clinics in Monterey County, where agriculture is a leading industry.
Do you stay home when the air quality doesn't make you feel well, or do you just go back to work?
These farm workers who are predominantly Latino feed the world, yet they're struggling to feed their own families and they've been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. In Monterey County alone, more than 70 percent of cases are among Latinos.
Often they go back to very congested living situations and everyone in the family is infected.
covid-19 patients tell Kennedy they just can't take a deep breath. That's compounded by wildfire smoke under a California regulation that took effect last year. Employers must provide proper masks to outdoor workers when air quality degrades to a certain level. Whether or not the workers are required to actually put on the mask depends on how bad the air quality is. The messaging is confusing, says Richard Stedman, who runs the regional air resources district. When the air is bad, the general public is told to stay indoors.
So when I see workers being advised that they can go out into the field and exert themselves as long as they have in their possession a mask, that's not very protective.
The United Farm Workers says even so, enforcement of the regulation is a problem. Armondo illness is with the UFW.
I mean, the vast majority of farmworkers were not provided or have not been provided.
And 95 Mass UFW conducted a statewide poll in August to get a better understanding of the situation. Workers told illness their eyes felt like they were burning.
But, you know, there were unfortunately, they were more worried about trying to make ends meet and trying to pay the rent.
With multiple wildfires in California and a pandemic that's making and knives hard to find, the state answered calls for help and shipped around one point four million masks to counties throughout the state. Henry Gonzalez, the agricultural commissioner for Monterey County, says he's received over 330000.
Those were, I think, really a godsend that we were able to get those considering their scarcity.
Back at the Strawberry Field in Salinas, Gonzalez watches workers snap, close the fruit containers. He says showing up to this job can be a risk, but the produce can't wait.
They're ready when they're ready.
And if you're not there to harvest them, they're going to go to waste, which means less money for companies, smaller paychecks for farm workers and fewer strawberries in grocery carts, losses that might be necessary to protect farm workers.
Health aide. Eric O'Mahoney with NPR member station Karzi You. Climate change is also leading to a busy hurricane season this year. Just today, two new tropical storms developed in the Atlantic Ocean. Tropical Storm Paulette and Tropical Storm Rene. And it's only been 10 days since Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana as a Category four storm. It killed at least 25 people. NPR's Rebecca Hirsche reports on how four years climate scientists have been trying to tell us that the problem is us.
Camilo Mora is a climate scientist, works at the University of Hawaii, and this year has left him so frustrated because humans knew this was coming.
Keep in mind that all these things are related. And so C02 is increasing the temperature.
Hotter temperatures mean more moisture evaporates into the air evaporation or what, at least to drought that into our lives, to heatwaves and fires in places are humid. The same evaporation leads to massive precipitation that then is coming through, followed by floods. So we have come to understand these Antonia's with you. Who cares, right?
I mean, he cares, but he's saying it can feel like he and other scientists are screaming into the void when they tell people climate change is dangerous. Last year, Mora and a team of top climate scientists published a study, and their conclusion was that in the future, lots of disasters will happen all at once.
And to be honest with you, when these things happen and people get surprised, I just ask myself, I mean, no offense to anybody, but what I mean by this thing, we have known this thing for the longest of time.
If humans cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically immediately, it will make the future safer. But emissions keep going up, not down, which means warmer air, which means heat waves, which means more intense wildfires like the ones in California and Colorado, and warmer water, which means hurricanes like Laura that get really powerful really fast.
Now, this is concerning since hurricanes that rapidly intensify before landfall are the hardest ones to prepare for.
Jeff Masters is a meteorologist who writes for Yale University's Climate Connections.
Whenever you get ocean temperatures that are much above average. You're asking for trouble. And we've seen some of the warmest ocean temperatures on record for the Atlantic Basin.
In some parts of the Gulf of Mexico, the water is near 90 degrees. That's what helped Laura go from a relatively weak storm to a monster in less than 24 hours.
I mean, he does energy. And if you're putting heat into our system, you're going to expect higher energy events.
A hot ocean was the fuel for Hurricane Laura's devastating wind and water. The same was true for hurricanes. Harvey, Maria, Michael, Florence, Irma. The list goes on from just the last three years. And then there's the pandemic. A warmer world makes disease outbreaks more likely as humans and animals move around and come into contact in new ways. The only way out, scientists continue to say, is to stop releasing greenhouse gases. NPR science reporter Rebecca Hirsche.
This is considered this from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. A whole lot of people say they believe in so-called peaceful protests marching as long as it doesn't block traffic for too long, holding up signs and chanting as long as it's all polite.
But what about when things get a little more divisive?
We're talking about going on strike. Listen to the Code Switch podcast from NPR.